You know what you don’t need on top of your schoolwork, extracurriculars, and after-school job?

A more stressful than necessary college application process. The whole thing can be exciting and nerve-wracking, and also a lot of work. While it’s true you’ve got a lot on your plate, some preparation can help you manage senior year and your college applications.

Denise Pope, cofounder of Challenge Success at Stanford University, an organization that studies how to reduce stress in students’ lives, knows that the pressure to succeed can be stifling for students. But with some preparation, organization, and a few stress-management techniques, you can survive application season in one piece. Here, students and experts reveal ways to strategize for a relatively calm application season.

1. Minimize ACT® and SAT® Retakes

While there’s something comforting about knowing you can retake standardized tests like the ACT and SAT exams, that doesn’t mean you should. “Preparing to take and taking these tests more than twice is not a good use of your time,” Pope says, adding that there’s no proof it’ll help you get into a better school. “The difference we see in scores—beyond taking the test twice—is not enough to make a difference in admissions at particular universities.”

2. Brainstorm Your Essays from Recent Experience

There’s nothing worse than sitting down to write something and realizing you have no idea where to start. So it’s no surprise that Arzelia W., who attended Michigan State University, cited the college essay as her biggest stressor. But, she has smart advice: If you’re struggling to come up with an essay topic, think about something you did in the last month or even the last week. “While it’s important that your essay reflects who you are as a person, it doesn’t have to go all the way back to freshman year,” she says. “With the activity still fresh in your mind, you convey a new level of energy to those reading your essay.”

3. Apply to Three Schools You Know You’ll Get Into and Like

Identify at least three schools you’re as confident as possible that you’ll get into and at which you can imagine yourself. You might know them as “safety schools,” but Pope prefers to call them “likely schools,” a phrase she adopted from teachers and counselors at her children’s high school. “Likely” schools can also include schools that are affordable and/or offer generous financial aid packages. These schools can still be academically rigorous, for example, many public universities have honors colleges that have more challenging courses.

4. Know Exactly What Your Top Schools Want in Students

The admissions process can feel like a mystery, but recruiters and admissions counselors will usually tell you what they’re looking for if you ask. Take advantage of any opportunity to speak to the ones at your top schools. Ask what qualities they look for in a student, what they think makes an admissions essay stand out or how you can strengthen your application. “Become familiar with what your top colleges expect from you,” says Adrian M., a Virginia Tech alum. “Then when you fill out your applications, you will have a sense of what a college is looking for.”

You’ll also have a sense of how much of a reach the school may be. That’s not to say you shouldn’t apply if the average test scores and GPAs are higher than yours, but it can be a sign that your recommendations, essays, and résumé must be solid. Researching your schools is also helpful in crafting your personal essays, which sometimes include a supplemental statement explaining why you want to attend that particular institution. As part of your research, make sure to connect with admissions officers, too. These relationships can also help your application.

5. Talk Honestly with the Adults in Your Life

No matter how much your parents (i.e., parents, guardians, adults at home) want you to get into a good college, they do not strive to be the source of your stress. The same goes for teachers, family members, and other adults who care about you. Jennifer Fairchild, LCSW, a therapist who works with girls and young women, encourages her teen clients to address issues with parents by using what she calls the Oreo Cookie Method:

  • The first layer is something positive: “I appreciate that you always want the best for me.”
  • The second layer is a declarative “I” statement that expresses how you feel: “I feel stressed when you ask me so many questions first thing in the morning.”
  • The third layer is a solution: “Can you please only ask me questions about school during our college power hour on Wednesday?”

6. Keep Track of Your Deadlines in a Spreadsheet

Whether it’s to keep yourself organized or minimize the number of questions your parents and counselors ask, it’s a good idea to create a master file that all interested parties can access. It can cut down on unnecessary (and stressful) back-and-forth. You can also stay on the same page by using a digital tracker, like the College Planning Calendar, so you know what your priorities are each month. When you’re ready to apply to college, you can add your parents or guidance counselor as an advisor on Common App. This allows them to see your application materials before you submit them.

7. Try Not to Compare Yourself to Others

You will probably grapple with how you stack up against your friends, and that’s only natural. But no matter how similar or wildly different their college application process is, almost nothing good can come of it. Fairchild suggests affirming yourself with an “I statement” the second you notice yourself starting to draw a comparison. It can be as simple as saying “I am unique,” and writing a list of three to four of your strengths.

8. Focus on the Big Picture

It might not seem like it right now, but no matter what happens with your college applications, this is just one stop at the beginning of your long life. “It always helped me to remember what it was I was passionate about outside of academics,” says Arzelia W. “Sure, going to a school whose name is recognizable can be cool, but attending a college or university where you truly feel like you belong is even better.”

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